Sunday, April 4, 2010

Excessive Drug Prices Promote Counterfeit Drug Industry

According to the WHO, lifesaving drugs are not exempt from the trade in counterfeit medicines. But nor are they exempt from the rights of powerful multinational pharmaceutical companies to make obscenely high profits, regardless of the cost in terms of sickness, suffering and death in developing countries. Organisations like WHO and Interpol (effectively, publicly funded) are busy trying to help these poor victims, the pharmaceutical companies, that is. Otherwise, their ability to extract higher and higher profits every year may be compromised.

Yes, the WHO is right, it is cynical to produce counterfeit drugs, some of which may not help the person taking them; some may make them worse or even kill them. But it is also cynical for Big Pharma to put such impossibly high prices on drugs, spend far more on marketing and lobbying than on research, compromise doctors and other health professionals to push their products, produce goods for the rich world while ignoring the poor majority, using people in poor countries as cheap research fodder for drugs intended for the rich world, preventing poor countries from producing and making generic equivalents of overpriced branded drugs, lobbying the WTO (World Trade Organisation) to make laws that protect Big Pharma at the expense of poor countries and generally frustrating any attempts to regulate them, even slightly.

I don't know how many people die from counterfeit drugs but I know that an estimated 14 million die every year from infectious diseases, many of them preventable or treatable. The policies of Big Pharma ensure that the majority of people who need drugs most will never be able to afford them. A notable exception is antiretroviral drugs (ARV) for HIV, which have only been reduced slightly in price and only because they are being paid for by aid money. And no one need worry that production of ARVs on a massive scale at slightly reduced prices causes Big Pharma to suffer in the least. If they didn't get the HIV industry to buy their drugs, the market for them would be miniscule in comparison to what it is now.

So the humbug WHO claim to be worried about ordinary people being exposed to counterfeit drugs. But this is just an excuse to use lots more public money to protect the interests of Big Pharma. Already, public money has gone into the research the pharmaceutical industry claims to do. But most of the costs of drug research are met by publicly funded bidies, such as research institutions, laboratories and universities. Then the drug companies slap a patent on the results and pocket all the profits. If the WHO was really concerned about endangering the public they would lobby Big Pharma to do one simple thing: lower their prices.

But that is one thing the industry will not do. Far from it, they will continue to lobby to be protected so that they can continue to make far bigger profits than most other industries. Lowering their prices, or even lowering their prices to affordable levels for drugs needed most by developing countries, would have little negative impact on their profits. In fact, like with HIV drugs, they may discover a market they have long been ignoring. But they would prefer to fight for their right to charge more than people in developing countries can afford, perhaps by lobbying for aid money to be spent on drugs other than just ARVs.

As long as patented drugs continue to be too expensive for people in developing countries, it will be worthwhile for counterfeiters to target them with their products. As long as Big Pharma lobbies against the production and distribution of generic versions of patented drugs, people in developing countries will have no option but to look for cheaper alternatives. Big Pharma, in its efforts to maximise its profits, is creating the ideal market for counterfeiters. Getting Interpol and the WHO to spend increasing amounts of money and creating more sophisticated law enforcement systems is pointless. Counterfeiters will also become more sopisticated, as they are amply demonstrating.

Why? Because there is good money to be made. Pharmaceutical products don't just include drugs, the number of products that are artificially overpriced because they are produced by this industry is enormous. Who wouldn't grasp the opportunity to take advantage of the opportunity to produce relatively cheap products that can be sold on at ridiculous prices, only slightly less ridiculous than the prices charged by Big Pharma?

It's because I sympathise with vulnerable people, mainly in developing countries, that I think that drug counterfeiting should be stopped. It's not because I think the pharmaceutical industry should be allowed to hold the world to ransom. But I think the industry itself is creating the problem. The cost of drugs needs to be reduced to make them affordable in developing countries and it needs to be possible for developing countries to produce and/or buy generic equivalents of life saving drugs because they will never be able to pay the prices currently demanded by the industry.


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